AARP AARP States Health & Wellbeing

With Medicare Enrollment, Timing is Everything

By Nicole Duritz

The other day I parked downtown to run an errand on my way home from work. I plugged the meter for just 30 minutes as I was sure I could get back to my car in the time allowed. But I didn’t expect a long line at the checkout counter. As I headed back to my car, I saw the dreaded parking ticket on my windshield.

The error cost me money. It was an unwanted expense and annoyed me to no end. But it’s a reminder that our intentions don’t always match up with reality.

Take enrolling for Medicare. Did you know that signing up late could raise the cost for you? It’s like getting an unwanted parking ticket, but it’ll cost a lot more.

Medicare Enrollment Rules

For the 8,000 Boomers that turn 65 everyday, it’s important to understand the Medicare rules of the road. Most of us are eligible for Medicare when we turn 65, but enrollment in Medicare generally isn’t something that automatically happens – you need to take action to sign up.

If you are nearing Medicare eligibility, you have a seven-month sign up window called your Initial Enrollment Period. This is the three months before your birth month, your actual birth month, and the three months that follow. It’s a good move to sign up as early as possible in the three-month window before your birth month. This way you can avoid any gaps in coverage. If you sign up in the first three months, your coverage will begin on the first day of your birth month, even if your birthday falls at the end of the month.

Signing up for Medicare during your Initial Enrollment Period takes a call to Social Security at 1-800-772-1213. Or if you prefer, you can go online at www.socialsecurity.gov or visit your local Social Security office to apply. And while we’re on the topic of Social security, keep in mind that most of us don’t start receiving Social Security benefits before turning 65. But if you are someone who currently receives Social Security retirement or disability benefits or Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) benefits, you will be enrolled automatically in Medicare Parts A and B.  Like enrolling in Medicare, timing is everything when it comes to Social Security too. Check out AARP’s Social Security calculator at www.aarp.org/socialsecuritybenefits to calculate the best age to claim your Social Security benefits.

If You Miss Your Initial Enrollment Period

If you don’t take action to enroll in Medicare during your seven-month window, you’ll have to wait until the General Enrollment Period, which runs January 1 – March 31 each year. Your coverage will then begin July 1. Not only do you risk a gap in health care insurance this way, but you’ll also pay more. If you don’t sign up in time for Medicare Part A (hospital coverage), your premium may go up 10%. The increase lasts for twice the number of years you could have been covered but didn’t sign up.

For Medicare Part B (medical services), your premium will permanently increase by 10% for each year you could have been covered but didn’t sign up.

If You or Your Spouse Still Works

If you are receiving health benefits from a job when you become Medicare-eligible, you may be able to stay on the employer’s plan. Check with your human resources benefits manager first to find out how the employer coverage works with Medicare. Note that if you or your spouse work for an employer with fewer than 20 workers, you might have to sign up for Medicare at age 65.

If You Receive Retiree Health Coverage

If you or your spouse are retired and have retiree health coverage, check with your employer or union to see how it works with Medicare.

For More Information

AARP offers an easy-to-use Medicare Q&A tool at www.aarp.org/MedicareQA. Use it to get the basic “ins and outs” of eligibility, enrollment and coverage options.  Also, the Alaska State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) provides free help to people with Medicare who have questions about their health insurance. These services are free of charge. The Alaska SHIP website is http://dhss.alaska.gov/dsds/Pages/medicare and the phone number in Anchorage is 269-3680 or toll–free within Alaska 1-800-478-6065.

Getting to know how Medicare works is an important step in planning for your future. No matter where you are headed in life, Medicare will be part of it, and signing up for Medicare at the right time is important. Aim for a smooth transition with no gaps in coverage or penalties for enrolling late.  Because when you are confident that Medicare has you covered, you can focus on turning your life goals into real possibilities.
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Nicole Duritz is Vice President of the Health & Family issues team in the Education and Outreach group at AARP.  She leads AARP’s educational and outreach efforts on health education issues, including Medicare, the health law, prescription drug affordability, long-term care, and prevention and wellness.  She can be reached at nduritz@aarp.org.

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